CAPITOL HILL - The U.S. Senate is nearing a vote to facilitate penalties against American companies that boycott Israel, a measure that divides Democrats and is cast by some Republicans as a litmus test of bedrock support for the Jewish state.
The chamber this week advanced the Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act, which is expected to pass next week. Republicans are united in support, while more than 20 Democrats reject the anti-boycott measure in a bill that also provides military assistance for Israel, extends defense cooperation with Jordan, and imposes new sanctions against the Syrian government.
The legislation would allow U.S. states and cities to decline to do business with American companies that take part in a campaign to boycott and divest from Israel in order to pressure the Jewish state to alter its policies with regard to Palestinians and Israeli settlements.
Known as BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions], the campaign describes itself as “Palestinian-led” and aims to end “international support for Israeli apartheid and settler-colonialism.”
“This anti-Israel crusade has waged economic war against the Jewish state by pushing companies around the world to boycott any business with Israel or its entities,” Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas said.
The legislation’s original sponsor, Republican Marco Rubio of Florida, said the bill simply aims to allow local governments “to boycott the boycotters.”
Democrats decried the measure as an assault on America’s First Amendment constitutional right to free speech.
Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen called the measure “state-sponsored discrimination against disfavored political expression.”
Van Hollen added, “[Republicans] want to use to power of the state to punish American citizens who disagree with them on this issue. It’s like saying to our fellow Americans: You’re free to peacefully express yourselves however you want. But the government is then free to use the power of the state to punish you for doing so.”
“There’s not a single senator voting against that bill that supports the BDS movement,” Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut told VOA. “This is simply a concern about First Amendment issues.”
'Right to counter-speak'
Murphy's concern is unwarranted, according to backers of the provision.
“This is not an effort to silence speech. It is an effort to defend the right to counter-speak,” Rubio said. “The First Amendment is a two-way street. You have a right to express your views on something, but others have a right to respond. You have a right to boycott a country — and people have a right to boycott you.”
As crafted, the bill puts many Democrats in the uncomfortable position of either swallowing concerns about the BDS measure or voting against a bill that contains other provisions they enthusiastically support, such as military aid for Israel. Republicans have pounced on opponents of the legislation.
“I think a vote against this does not show a great deal of support for Israel,” Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson said. “Just like if you voted for the Iranian [nuclear] agreement, you’re not a real strong supporter of Israel.”
One Republican went a step further.
“There are some people in the U.S. Congress that hate Israel — I don’t know how to put it any other way,” Louisiana Senator John Kennedy told VOA. “Now, I’m not saying if you vote against the bill you automatically hate Israel. But there’s a lot of anti-Israel bias in Congress.”
'Another political football'
Asked if any Democrats who oppose the bill bear anti-Israel sentiment, Murphy said, “None whatsoever. That’s a preposterous question. But the fact that you are asking it is a sign that they [Republicans] are getting what they want. … Ultimately the security of Israel is hurt by this issue becoming another political football in Washington.
“They [Republicans] have taken a bill that had broad bipartisan support, maybe unanimous support, and tried to turn it into a political weapon,” Van Hollen said. “While I disagree with some of the policies adopted by the Netanyahu government in Israel, I do not in any way support a boycott as a method of expressing those disagreements.”
The Maryland Democrat added, “But let me be equally clear: I will fiercely defend the constitutional right of any American citizen to express his or her views in such a peaceful way if they so choose.”
Rubio noted the bill’s reach is limited to U.S. companies, not individuals. He insisted there were no partisan political motivations behind the BDS provision.
“To say that this was designed to split Democrats or to be partisan is stupid, since my co-sponsor [of the measure] is a Democrat [Joe Manchin of West Virginia],” the Florida Republican told VOA. “This has been a bipartisan issue from the beginning.”
Jewish-American public policy groups are divided on the legislation. In a statement, Washington-based, liberal-leaning J Street said, “It’s outrageous that Senate Republican leaders are prioritizing legislation that tramples on the First Amendment and advances the interests of the Israeli settlement movement.”
By contrast, the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, AIPAC, tweeted, “The Senate should pass this bill without delay. … The bill in no way impedes the rights of individuals to boycott Israel. It does not even address state actions against individuals. The bill only covers commercial activity by companies, which states have the authority to regulate.”
On its website, the BDS movement wrote that “the right to boycott Israel is under threat,” adding that political boycotts “are precisely the freedoms the Constitution is meant to protect.”
Late Thursday, the Senate adopted an amendment cautioning President Donald Trump against swift U.S. troop withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan.
“While I understand and respect President Trump’s desire to bring our troops home and to end these protracted wars, we must do so in a way that ensures enduring stability and protects our interests and those of our allies, the need for caution and reflection as we consider troops withdrawals,” South Dakota Republican John Thune said.